Revisiting Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Sarkar’ as it turns 18

'Sarkar' is a complex jigsaw of patriarchal intensity, filial crises and familial obligations

'Sarkar' poster (photo courtesy: IMDb)
'Sarkar' poster (photo courtesy: IMDb)

Subhash K Jha

Dark, gleaming, ominous corridors hiding anguished pain, characters who look like they could do with a bath...and a massage to release some of the nervous tension that comes from a blurred perception of crime and morality — this characterises the givens in a Varma film.

Sarkar (2005) takes us through a world governed by the rules of survival of the fittest. So what makes this film the most special achievement of Varma's career? It's the father-son combination of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, furnishing the director’s ebony vision of the world gone awry with a kind of blazing and bridled intensity that we last saw when Dilip Kumar and Amitabh played father and son in Ramesh Sippy's Shakti.

Sarkar is a complex jigsaw of patriarchal intensity, filial crises and familial obligations. Its ethical complexities go far beyond politics and cinema to embrace a kind of multi-dimensional secularism where religion is not about gods but definitions of goodness.

Who's the real villain? The criminals, or the ones who check crime and corruption by extra-constitutional means? The socio-political issue becomes more tangled in the light of the septic corruption that has crept into the governmental structure.

Into this world comes Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief. Thackeray's name is changed to Subhash Nagare in the film. But the power and the socio-political positioning of the man remain unaltered in the movie version of his life.

No other actor in the universe could've played Thackeray's screen version, or done the astonishing things that Abhishek has done to the character. Abhishek plays Nagare, the frail and yet all-powerful man. Marlon Brando's The Godfather provides a prototypical starting point for Subhash Nagare, one of the most entrancing heroes ever in Indian cinema.

Varma brings out the protagonist's power and glory through a demeanour that never screams for attention. Little gestures and nuances, agreeable and yet sinister, swathe the screen in a splendid arc of life and vitality.

Abhishek as Shankar, the quietly faithful, duty-bound younger son destined to take up the strange family business — a role that has its roots in Al Pacino's character in The Godfather —  is in-sync with his character and the senior Bachchan's prismatic persona. Abhishek's delicately balanced facial expressions, his projection of the character's fierce unquestioning loyalty towards his father's politics, is done with such rare care and sensitivity that you cease to look at the actor.

Kay Kay Menon as the archetypal son gone to seed remains understandably outside the two-member circle created so vividly by the Bachchans. His villainous grimace seems a trifle exaggerated in a film where the main characters express themselves in small print rather than italics.

Another over-the-top character is the Chandraswami-styled godman with a wig that mocks the muted makeover of the main characters.

The background score by Amar Mohile hammers in the emotions of every scene...You wonder why subtlety and delicacy are qualities that need to be counter-balanced to be fully effective!

Wisely, Varma has constructed the story of Nagare's political and domestic drama as a crime thriller. The happenings in the second half are swift, sudden and jolting. The narrative sweeps you into an embrace that sucks you into drama.

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